Archive for the 'Lara MacDonald' Category

Rwanda’s legacy – implications for the Central African Republic

By Lucy Phillips, on 17 April 2014

By Lara Macdonald

Christian militia in the CAR

Christian militia in the CAR

The 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide has been marked by a series of remembrance events worldwide, the most significant of which took place in the country’s capital, Kigali. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the event in Kigali, told the crowd, “We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again’, again and again”. His statement was a poignant and indeed, telling, reference to Clinton’s 1998 speech in Rwanda, where he declared “Never again must we be shy in the face of evidence.”

Ban Ki-moon made a quick visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) on his way to the ceremony in Rwanda, a visit that has no doubt highlighted the parallels between the two countries. In his address to the CAR, Ban Ki-moon reassured the citizens of “the heart of Africa” that they were not forgotten, and that their strife is the first thing that crosses his mind when he wakes up. If, as Ban Ki-moon insisted, the words ‘never again’ are more than empty rhetoric, the commemoration of the Rwanda genocide must underscore the importance of not shying away from the atrocities that continue to plague the CAR.

In the past week, the UN announced plans to deploy 12,000 troops to the CAR in order to fulfill the primary task of protecting civilians. Moreover, the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, announced that the US has committed an additional $22 million in humanitarian aid to the CAR to address the most pressing issues facing citizens, including healthcare, food distribution, water sanitation and security. Both statements demonstrate an encouraging interest and commitment on the part of the UN to the desperate situation in the CAR. However, the fact that the citizens of the CAR will have waited 17 months by the time the UN peace-keeping force finally arrives, compels us to question the speed with which the UN acts when faced with irrefutable evidence of human rights abuses.

Whilst the CAR has been marked by political instability since it gained independence from France in 1960, the last nine months have witnessed a state collapse of epic proportion. The most recent and bloody bout of civil conflict was sparked by the Seleka militia, a group led by Micahel Djotodia, the CAR’s former interim President. In March they seized the capital Bangui and ousted then-President François Bozizé. The arbitrary nature of Seleka’s abuses has brought sectarian tension and hostility to the fore.

Ongoing conflict in the CAR

Ongoing conflict in the CAR

Whilst the majority of the CAR’s population, including President Bozizé, are Christian, the Selekas are predominantly Muslim. This, combined with the recent emergence of the Christian-based ‘anti-balaka’ militia in response to Seleka’s actions, has given violence a disturbingly religious edge.

Catherine Samba-Panza, previously Mayor of the capital Bangui, was elected as the interim leader of the CAR in January of this year. Samba-Panza follows in the footsteps of fellow female African Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Joyce Banda of Malawi. These leaders were both successful in rebuilding their countries politically and economically in the wake of conflict, and they serve as important role-models for Samba-Panza.

Whilst the dominant narrative in mainstream coverage of the CAR crisis has been one of a conflict driven by religious tension, Samba-Panza has been anxious to quash this ‘myth’. According to Caesar Nyeko Poblicks, Projects Manager for East and Central Africa at Conciliation Resources, the focus on ‘religion’ is an oversimplification. He argues that while the violence in the CAR has taken place along religious lines, the causes and motivations behind it are in fact political and economic. His diagnosis supports claims by Samba-Panza that the conflict is instead rooted in bad governance, corrupt institutions and poverty.

Whilst this oversimplification is at best ‘lazy diagnosis’, at worst, it paves the way for future tension and conflict. There is a very real risk that the creation of a false dichotomy by the global media will only serve to exacerbate existing divisions. On top of this, it risks provoking the international community into a response that is based on wrong-headed objectives.

The temptation on the part of the international community and the global media to reduce the complexity of the situation in the CAR to a binary, religious conflict is seemingly irresistible. However, at the same time, if we view the CAR through the lens of the Rwandan genocide, there also exists a real desperation to avoid yet another ‘misinterpretation’ of a civil conflict. The conflict which erupted in 1994 in Rwanda was quite clearly driven by ethnic motivations, yet the international community, most specifically Western powers, refused to call it a genocide. Perhaps the tragic legacy of the international community’s silence in Rwanda has led to the hasty categorization of the situation in the CAR as a religious conflict. If this is the case, a more nuanced approach is needed if we are to successfully bring this catastrophe to a halt.

Today, the CAR stares into an abyss of dreadful proportions. The primary objective must be to quickly restore security, whilst beyond that, the paralysed state needs to be revived, the institutions built from scratch. This process calls for a tailored, country-specific approach, not one modelled on the recycled lessons from other African conflicts. If the legacy of Rwanda is to be a constructive one, the actions of the international community can no longer be clouded by their guilt.

Whose peace is it anyway? – FARC, Santos and the popular voice

By Lucy Phillips, on 29 March 2014

By Lara MacDonald

Colombian peace protestPerfectly condensed fact files on any range of topics, from unhealthy foods to the Crimea, are easy to find. A recent article in the Guardian has neatly condensed the fifty-year conflict in Colombia, and the ongoing peace process, into a tidy 1333 word count. However, the complexities of the longest running civil war in the Western Hemisphere are difficult to digest.

The oft-cited figures quickly roll off the tongue: 250,000 deaths and over 5 million displaced persons. However, the protracted nature of the conflict has wreaked unquantifiable damage on Colombia’s land and citizens. This is certainly not the first time the Colombian government has attempted to engage the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC), Colombia’s largest rebel group, in peace talks, but the question begs: why now?

Journalists and academics have theorized about this question since rumours of the peace talks began in August 2010 (a good synopsis of the main arguments can be found here). The present day has been hailed as a unique window of opportunity. With the killing of the FARC’s notorious leader, Alfonso Cano, by the Colombian army, the FARC have become increasingly directionless and fragmented. Moreover, their indiscriminate approach to kidnapping and killing has distanced them from their traditional rural constituencies.

However, most remarkable of all is the fact that the Colombian government has begun to strike the FARC where it hurts most – their ideology. President Santos’ response to the FARC’s raison d’étre: the defense of the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy classes, is best illustrated by the passing of the Victims and Land Restitution Law. The law aims to return stolen and abandoned land to millions of internally displaced Colombians, an issue which had always been at the forefront of the FARC’s political agenda. President Santos has invested a great deal in embarking on a dialogue with the FARC.

Indeed, the highly politicized history of Colombian peace talks explains why the current peace talks are effectively a life support machine for President Santos’ political future. In 1999, Andres Pastrana sat down at the negotiating table with the FARC. After enduring three years of failed attempts to reach a compromise, he gave in, and in doing so he lost his presidency.

Subsequently, his successor Alvaro Uribe, responded to the frustrations of Colombians by crushing the rebels over his eight-year presidency. Despite initially pledging to continue Uribe’s hard-hitting policies against the guerillas, Santos has jumped ship and fully embraced negotiations with the FARC. Polls place Santos well ahead of his rivals with 38% of the votes. However, he is by no means a unifying figure, and is considered by many to be an opportunist – taking advantage of the peace talks for his own political agenda.

It is not only Santos’ sincerity which has come under scrutiny from skeptics. The design of the peace process has been severely criticized for its closed, secretive nature. Interestingly, Santos consulted a delegation of Northern Ireland politicians who recommended that the negotiations show regard for wider society. The use of the Irish model as inspiration for the framework agreement designed for the FARC is indicative of Santos’ approach as a whole: setting the peace talks within the historical context of large-scale conflict resolution.

The agenda neatly encompasses five main points: land reform, political participation of the FARC, disarmament of the rebels, drug trafficking, and victims’ rights. However, the fact that the negotiations are being held under the motto “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” renders each point mutually dependent.

Yet the recent riots in Venezuela have highlighted the fragility of the peace talks. The Venezuelan government has often acted as a mediator in past negotiations with the FARC, and Santos has again obtained their formal backing for these peace talks. However, Santos has been accused by his main presidential rival for the May elections, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, of adopting a complicit silence in the face of Venezuelan government repression.

This is only a taster of the dirty politics which have significantly delegitimized the peace talks since their commencement. Last month, the head of the FARC negotiating team, Ivan Márquez, accused Uribe of spying on government negotiators, and joined others in his accusation that “[Uribe] is the No.1 enemy of peace in Colombia”.

The Colombian public have unequivocally expressed their frustration. At a recent talk, Javier Ciurlizza, Latin America’s programme director for the International Crisis Group, argued that there was a high chance of Colombian voters leaving their ballots blank in order to voice their discontent. The media have even wryly tipped the ‘blank vote’ as the top presidential candidate for the May elections.

Further, a bastion of Santos’ vision for a peaceful Colombia is the purging of the country’s coca crop, replacing it with legal crops. Colombia has historically been one of the world’s largest exporters of cocaine. Counter-intuitive as this may seem, replacing one with the other would have devastating effects on farmers who rely on the cultivation of coca leaves to make a living. Media reports and government statements, not to mention Nick Clegg, have failed to acknowledge the desperate farmers’ plight.

Colombian farmers, as other groups in society, are throwing their hats in the ring.  The civil society resistance movement in Colombia, formed of indigenous, Afro-Colombian and women’s groups, has grown in strength over the fifty years of conflict. Tragically, their demands are in no way reflected in the five-point agenda being discussed in Havana.

The process works also in reverse. Santos has been unable to convince Colombians that the best way of reintegrating the FARC is through politicisation of the group. Without the involvement of voices from the community, there is doubt that this will be possible. A recent poll by the University of the Andes reveals that 76% of surveyed Colombians currently disagree with the government guaranteeing the political participation of demobilized FARC members, which proves there has been little trickle down from the talks.

At the heart of this are two important words: truth and justice. Deciphering the true narrative of the conflict, and what form of justice serves best as restitution. The path to truth forks between independent truth commissions and the government’s own account of events. Justice can notionally be served through the International Criminal Court (which Thabo Mbeki and Mahmood Mamdani certainly would not argue for) or through restorative mechanisms (as seen in Mozambique).

Colombians have learnt not to be overly optimistic. While defining truth and justice is hard enough, continued activity from neo-paramilitary criminal gangs (BACRIMs) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) makes peace seem like a distant prospect. To this day the government has failed to engage in formal peace talks with the ELN, the smaller of Colombia’s two insurgencies. Despite being a regionally confined threat, they have proven their capacity to adapt and resist. The ELN grasping their last opportunity to exit gracefully from the armed conflict is a crucial step toward securing lasting and sustainable peace in Colombia.

This weekend I attended a conference on Corporations, Conflict and Community Resistance hosted by War on Want, in which Colombian human rights activist Berenice Celeyta said the following:

Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo – Only the people can save the people.

Local ownership of the peace process could sustain a fruitful outcome, but perhaps Santos and the negotiators in Havana are too far adrift from the Colombian people to enable this currently. And if it is the people who can truly save the people, then there lies the key.

Stefan Wolff – ‘One man and his dog’ Designing and Managing Peace Processes?

By Saskia Kok, on 20 March 2014

Stefan Wolff, Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, spoke at UCL on 27th February 2014.

By Lara McDonald and Saskia Kok 

Professor_Stefan_WolffStefan Wolff took to the floor, assured by Chair Neil Mitchell that as an expert in peace processes he was in a ‘recession free business’. Any preconception the audience may have had that Wolff, as a Professor of International Security, would assume a wholly academic standpoint was quickly dispelled. In recognizing that the process of negotiations is beyond theory, Wolffe argued that observing processes from the outside helps to make the process on the whole more effective. He asserted that his talk would therefore take a practical, not theoretical, perspective and that he would be drawing from his wealth of participant experience in conflicts in Moldova, Iraq and Georgia, to name a few.

Perhaps having caught sight of a few raised eyebrows in the audience, Wolff began to play with the audience: “For the sake of the discussion, let’s pretend there is a science behind peace processes”. There was no doubt that he ultimately intended to undermine his own point, and prove that there, in fact, is no science behind peace processes. However, his contradictions had succeeded in engaging the audience. In line with his scientific approach, Wolff focused strictly on six of the nine dimensions of a peace process and discussed the responsibility of the mediator at each stage in keeping the negotiations moving.

The first hurdle of the peace process is the purpose of the negotiations, whereby conflict parties communicate their individual objectives for the negotiation process to one another. This stage is, according to Wolff, indicative of the real issues which will later surface in the process. The mediator must prove to be innovative at this moment as mediators are forced to take refuge in very vague formulations such as a peaceful future to ensure agreement on a common purpose. Relying on such an ambiguous purpose poses the first challenge to Wolff’s eccentric statement that there is a science behind peace processes.

Wolff proceeded to the next stage of the peace process: the format. The key question considered here was how secretive or public peace negotiations should be. Wolff articulated the example of the Oslo I Accord, the first face-to-face agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the government of Israel. An advantage of private talks, according to Wolff, is that they impose less pressure on the negotiators. However, he also warned that conflict parties might exploit this secrecy and refuse to be held accountable to their citizens. The quality of the mediator most stressed here was that of sensitivity, in particular to the history of the conflict parties.

Wolff recognized that it is often a struggle to decide on which actors should participate in the peace process. He placed more stress on the dreadful repercussions of not having an inclusive enough peace process and illustrated this with the tragic example of the Sudanese government. Wolff detailed how the Sudanese government has deliberately made separate deals with different factions to impede their country’s peace process. The patience of the mediator was crucial here.

It soon became clear, as Wolff began to discuss the agenda of peace processes, that the mediator’s patience needed to be complemented with creativity. Wolff provided some light relief for the audience as he tackled some of the linguistic intricacies of peace processes. After claiming that mediators have to “manipulate” language, Wolff corrected himself by stating they had to be creative with their use of language.

Perhaps the most contentious point of the talk came as Wolff addressed the timetable of peace talks. He stressed that settling on a suitable length for talks was key to their success: too long and momentum would be lost, risking violation of the cease-fire, on the other hand, too short and only a temporary, sub-optimal agreement would be reached. Most importantly, a mediator has to sequence issues so that the most controversial issues are left to the end. However, according to Wolff, the “easy issues”, with which mediators tend to open peace talks are human rights and gender participation. Wolff went on to argue that it is very easy to implement actions in support of these issues as there are many international conventions and “this and that and the other, you just make reference to them”. For the first time, Wolff’s application of science to the peace process made the audience feel somewhat uncomfortable. It was clear that the mediator had to be willing to compromise throughout this process, but surely compromising on such pernicious issues as the violation of human rights and the subjugation of women seemes a step too far.

Possibly sensing he had touched a nerve with some audience members Wolff drew on a light, entertaining anecdote to illustrate the final stage of the peace process: reaching the agreement. Wolff told the story of the final day of the Kirkuk, Iraq negotiations which took place in Berlin. At 4pm on the final day, talks, which had taken years of planning and careful negotiating, were brought to a halt. The German labour union had suddenly called a strike which meant that the negotiating team’s bus driver, being unionised, could not carry on working, plus the secretary needed to lock up to return home. Therefore, the conflict parties were forced then and there to sign the agreement in the hotel lobby. Wolff argued that it was thanks to the German Labour Law that the Kirkuk peace negotiations were brought to an end, and concluded that often it is a ‘combination of a whole lot of accidents’ that bring peace talks to their conclusion.

At times, during the talk, Wolff self-consciously donned the mantle of the Germans. Joking with the audience that he sometimes played with the stereotypical German trait of discipline, to ensure that those involved in the peace talks would arrive promptly: “I have a radio controlled watch and we will all be here tomorrow at 9”. However, perhaps the most insightful moment was when Wolff painted a rather lackluster portrait of himself as “a middle aged white guy from a really rich country who has had a very privileged life”. In taking a moment to view himself from the perspective of the conflict parties, Wolff revealed perhaps the most important quality of the mediator, self-awareness.

The extremely complex cultural context of peace talks and erratic nature of conflict parties demonstrate that peace talks certainly do not abide by theory.  Peace talks rely on specific momentum provided by an innovative, sensitive, patient, creative, self-aware mediator who must to be willing to compromise. Even when all these ingredients are present, peace talks are fragile. Their success relies on a seemingly random mishmash of factors unknown to mediators and academics alike – however, perhaps it is due to the pursuit of this elusive formula that Stefan Wolff and his colleagues will never be out of a job.